Rockefeller’s Tessier-Lavigne Heads Back to the Bay to Run Stanford

Xconomy New York — 

[Updated, 2/5/16, 7:06 am ET] Marc Tessier-Lavigne spent much of his professional life on the West Coast before becoming president of Rockefeller University in 2011. From that perch, the neuroscientist was a ringleader in New York’s emerging life sciences community.

After five years, however, he’s heading back to the San Francisco Bay Area to run another prestigious medical institution he’s well familiar with—Stanford University.

In a statement this afternoon, Stanford said that the 56-year-old Tessier-Lavigne will succeed John Hennessy as the president of Stanford on Sept. 1. Hennessy announced in June that he would leave Stanford after 16 years.

Tessier-Lavigne spent more than a decade as a professor at UCSF, then Stanford, where he was recruited by Hennessy, according to the university.

He was then hired as the senior vice president of research at Genentech in 2003 and stayed for seven years, eventually becoming the company’s chief scientific officer. He left the Bay Area in 2010 to come to New York and succeed Paul Nurse as the president of Rockefeller. He officially started his tenure there in March 2011.

Since that time, Tessier-Lavigne has become a key figure spurring New York City’s life sciences scene, which lagged behind the biotech clusters of Boston and San Francisco for decades. Along with genetics pioneer Tom Maniatis and several others, he helped guide the creation of the New York Genome Center, a collaborative effort between many of the area’s research institutions. As of now, Tessier-Lavigne remains on the Genome Center’s board of directors.

[Updated with comments from Gertler, Goulburn, McKnight] He is also on the board of the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute, a partnership between Rockefeller, Weill-Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center that aims to move discoveries forward from basic science labs. These are just a few examples of the academic-industry partnerships he tried to foster—something that Eric Gertler, CEO of Ulysses Ventures and the former executive vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., says that Tessier-Lavigne uniquely had the “credibility and gravitas” to do given his background.

He made frequent appearances at local life sciences events to champion biotech in Manhattan. “It’s like a tinder box,” he said of the city at a recent panel at the Biotech and Money Conference in New York in November. “There’s a lot of momentum to start companies.”

Gertler also says Tessier-Lavigne was also a “vital partner” in bringing together the NYCEDC’s $150 million life sciences fund announced last year. The fund, which is backed by Arch Venture Partners and Flagship Ventures, will be used to back early stage life sciences startups in the city. “He provided a clear vision for the future of biotech in the city,” Gertler says.

Those efforts—as well as emerging incubators, other industry-seasoned executives leading city universities, and a recent influx of early-stage life sciences venture capitalists—have helped move the needle in New York. Some high-profile startups have recently emerged—one of them, Lodo Therapeutics, is a Rockefeller spinout.

His impact has been felt by many in the local life sciences scene. Lux Capital partner Adam Goulburn, for instance, notes that Tessier-Lavigne helped him strategize how to launch Kallyope, one of the big name biotech startups to form in New York over the past few months. Tessier-Lavigne brought “experience, star power and a real enthusiasm” to the city’s biotech scene.

“He opened doors, was part of every New York life science discussion. It’s a real loss,” Goulburn says. “I guess if there’s a positive in his leaving, it’s that the link between New York and Silicon Valley biotech is now significantly stronger.”

“He played a significant role in upping the game in New York,” adds Susan Solomon, the CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation. “We need to really develop all the necessary pieces of the [biotech] ecosystem—from funding to accelerators, to places to actually do the work, and he made that a focus.”

Solomon, who calls Tessier-Lavigne as a personal friend and professional colleague, looks at the news positively. She quips: “I think New York just got bigger—we now reach all the way to the other coast.”

“[He] is nothing less than a catalyst for the entire biotech movement in [New York City] over the past five to six years,” adds Nicole McKnight, the co-founder and director of the local Keystone for Incubating Innovation in Life Sciences Network.

“He was also very clear, and has been very clear to this day, that the city needs more affordable wet lab space for life science start-ups,” she says. “I am sure he feels frustrated that more could not be done in the time he was here to make progress towards solving this problem.”

Tessier-Lavigne could not immediately be reached for comment. A Rockefeller spokesperson pointed Xconomy to a statement from Russell Carson, the chairperson of Rockefeller’s board of trustees:

“While the Board of Trustees and I are very sorry that he will be leaving us, we also recognize the extraordinary opportunity that Stanford presents for Marc and wish him well in his new role,” Carson said.

Carson added that Tessier-Lavigne would stay “fully engaged” in the day-to-day management of Rockeller through the summer. Carson will form and chair a search committee to recruit a new president.

“It will be a privilege to rejoin the Stanford community and to lead this extraordinary institution,” Tessier-Lavigne said in a separate statement from Stanford.

Tessier-Lavigne also recently helped start Denali Therapeutics, a Bay Area startup developing treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

“New York City’s loss is Stanford’s gain,” McKnight says. “He will be missed.”